Real Estate & Property Law

Lawyer cites beautification exception in trespass law to justify takeovers of abandoned homes

Lawyer Edward Voci acknowledges that his theory has not been tested in an Illinois appeals court.

But he believes squatters are meeting statutory requirements when they take over an abandoned property and make it better, the New York Times reports. Voci, who works with a group called Occupy Our Homes, says the Illinois trespass law exempts from prosecution those people who enter an abandoned or unoccupied property and beautify it.

“Putting a family in an abandoned building, ridding an area of blight, if that’s not beautifying, I don’t know what it is,” he told the Times.

Voci does not rely on adverse possession, a difficult process in Illinois that requires someone to occupy an unused property without interruption for 20 years.

The story tracks the efforts of housing activist Willie Fleming, who calls himself J.R. for “Just Righteousness.” His Anti-Eviction Campaign has placed people in 20 abandoned properties in the last year, he told the newspaper.

The story explains roadblocks to Chicago’s efforts to take over abandoned properties. Since 2009, the city has paid $168 million to buy 862 vacant foreclosures. It improved 804 of the properties, at an average cost of $110,000. Despite low prices, buyers are in short supply. Only 91 have been sold.

The city also had trouble obtaining title to properties; it was able to do so only for 10 percent of targeted buildings. “To dodge fees,” the story says, “banks often weren’t registering their foreclosures, or they didn’t complete the foreclosure process to avoid the tax burden and responsibility of the unmovable real estate. Thousands of other bad mortgages were bundled in private securitization trusts, frequently with the trusts technically owning the loans and the evicted homeowners owning the property.”

Cook County is now planning to form a land bank that will buy thousands of vacant residences. Some will be torn down, some will be rented out, and some will be held until the time is right to put them on the market. “By clearing titles and back taxes,” the story says, “the land bank hopes to attract the most responsible of the investor groups that are currently gobbling up distressed housing in neighborhoods with far better prospects.”

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